Divij Sharan complements Rohan Bopanna as India stay in World Group 1March 6, 2022
On the centre court of the Delhi Gymkhana Club on Saturday, there was Frederik Nielsen, Denmark captain and 2012 Wimbledon champ, Mikael Torpegaard, the big-serving youngster and Rohan Bopanna, the even bigger-serving veteran and the highest-ranked player in the doubles rubber. Then there was the fourth, Divij Sharan. India secured the Davis Cup tie with a 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (4) win in doubles, saving three match points to keep the nation in the World Group 1. And the most influential player on the court was the most understated one.
Saturday’s match was the third in Davis Cup for the 36-year-old Sharan. The last time he was summoned for doubles duty, he partnered Bopanna on Kolkata grass and bested an Italian pair featuring current world No.7 Matteo Berrettini. One of his five ATP titles came alongside Bopanna, as did the 2018 Asian Games gold medal.
The last two seasons, however, have been tough for Sharan, whose best finish has been a Challenger final in 2020. The Indian think-tank, thus, could have been tempted to field Ramkumar Ramanathan for the doubles rubber. The non-playing captain Rohit Rajpal suggested as much on Friday after Ramkumar’s whirlwind singles win.
That Bopanna and Ramkumar have won two ATP titles this year would’ve only strengthened the case.
Instead, Denmark did the switch. They replaced Johannes Ingildsen — who has won a doubles rubber in Davis Cup before — with Torpegaard, who had never played one, because the latter had “a big weapon, his serve.”
India stuck with Sharan, who doesn’t serve big. Sharan was often tested, in a match largely dictated by serves. There was one break in almost two hours and in 13 games, the service was held to love. Seven times in the first set (three of the first four games), the returning team couldn’t get on the board. Bopanna, Torpegaard and Nielsen immediately found their groove, racing to ‘love holds’.
Sharan was stretched to a deuce in his first service game. The three match points Denmark earned were also on his serve.
“It goes without saying, and it’s not to compare the two, but Bopanna was making a lot of first serves and his first serve is really powerful. Divij plays more on placement” Nielsen said about trying to attack Sharan’s serve. “We had a feeling that there might be a few more chances (against Sharan). The scoreboard situation also put Divij’s serves under pressure. But we didn’t break the serve once.”
What he lacks in power, Sharan makes up for with his placement.
Being a leftie, he brings the usual unaccustomed angles and spins, along with the out-wide serve. But the advantage is even more pronounced in doubles.
There’s a reason why in doubles, the four men’s teams with the most Grand Slam titles featured a right-left combination. The mirror twins Mike and Bob. The Woodies, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde. John Newcombe and Tony Roche. Peter Fleming and John McEnroe. Also, the Murray Brothers. Roy Emerson, the third most successful doubles player, prominently partnered with lefties Rod Laver and Neale Fraser.
By stationing Sharan on the deuce side, India essentially had two forehands. The combo had free overheads and forehands in the middle of the court. Bopanna controlled the net expertly. To get to Sharan’s backhand, the Danes had to thread the ball down the line or smack it cross-court. These are riskier, tougher shots in most conditions. On the Delhi grass, it was nearly impossible. Nielsen tried to do that on Denmark’s third match point at 5-6 in the third set. He shaped to deposit Sharan’s second serve cross-court, away from the prowling Bopanna. The ball stayed low, he was rushed and found the net.
“Rohan’s got a big game, Divij doesn’t. But as long as they combine well, that’s the most important thing,” said India coach Zeeshan Ali. “Divij has got a left-hand serve, Rohan was covering the net, it was very difficult to get the ball past him. The court was playing quick and that’s where Divij got a lot of help from. Even though he might not have the biggest serve or the hardest groundstrokes, he gets a lot of help from the surface.”
Bopanna summed up Sharan’s contribution. “With the lefty serve of Divij, there is not enough space on this kind of court, and it is very tricky to turn. When you have somebody covering the net like myself, trying to help him out, it puts a lot of pressure on the returns. Credit to Divij to come up with some good second serves.”
With Bopanna’s bazooka serves finding their mark and Torpegaard matching the Indian for pace, it was Nielsen’s serve that cracked.
After the adrenaline high of taking the first set in the tiebreak, the 38-year-old Dane shanked volleys and conceded “a cheap break.” And once India saved the three match points in the third, they carried the momentum to seal the tiebreak.
Results: Rohan Bopanna-Divij Sharan beat Frederik Nielsen-Mikael Torpegaard 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (4); Ramkumar Ramanathan beat Johannes Ingildsen 5-7, 7-5, 10-7 (5th match was not played)